Thursday, February 22, 2007

DePalma makes a turd that sure doesn't smell like a flower

I just watched The Black Dahlia this evening and boy does it suck for lack of a better word. I have enjoyed James Ellroy’s books very much but this film isn't anywhere near the caliber of his fine novel of the same name. Of course the main difference is one of them you read and the other you watch (I’m not a big fan of directly comparing a book to its film version). However, the film is not even close to capturing the flavor and feel of Ellroy’s book. Obviously because of the novel’s length and complexity, attempting a straight adaptation of the book would have kept me watching till breakfast. The story was cut to hell, a necessity I understand, but it seems the cuts in narrative, background story and dialogue were for establishing an atmosphere or mood. Unfortunately the atmosphere created an urge to look at the clock every two minutes, wondering when it would end. The mood and narrative was distant to the centerpiece of the story; the Dahlia murder itself. That aspect of the film seemed quite secondary to everything else on the celluloid. Sure DePalma’s films can give your eyeballs cavities because of the way they look, and this one was no exception. It was probably his most visually stunning film to date. The actors are quite easy to gaze at as well (My friend Matt met Scarlett Johansson and said that she is even more beautiful in person than she is on screen, and he is not one for hyperbole). Johansson is much too young for the Kay role and the same goes for Hartnett as Bucky. Maybe in ten years they could have genuinely looked the part but they both looked like they were playing dress up with stuff they raided from grandpa and grandma's closet.

Brian DePalma ultimately, is just not a very good storyteller. Never has been. I like only a few of his films (Blow Out, Carlito’s Way and Scarface). Even those I just mentioned I realize are far from great, but do have their merits. The big question is why do people keep giving this guy millions of dollars to make these really mediocre to poor quality films?

Schilling as a free agent?

Apparently the Red Sox brass have decided to wait until the end of the season to sit down with Curt Schilling and try to hammer out a deal. Schilling on the other hand has decided to file for free agency. Of course he can't do this till NOVEMBER. Distractions gravitate to the Sox like Sizemore to meth (Hollywood's Tom, not Cleveland's Grady). This will be no exception as every start by Curt this year will inevitably have some sort of reference/discussion by the media as to whether this will be his last year for the oldetowne team and so forth. I'm really on he fence about this one. My gut tells me to sign him as 13 million seems paltry (what Curt was asking) when someone like Gil Meche who has never pitched over 200 innings in a season and has a lifetime ERA of 4.65 gets 11 million a year? I do however see Theo's view that they want to see how he pitches in 07' before they commit to a 40 year old dude. He did put his career on the line for the Sox in 04' and obviously has enormous pride in his work so we know he won't slack off. On the other hand I think that waiting and seeing how he pitches is a good move when people like Carlos Zambrano will be available at the end of the season. Regardless of the distractions (see Manuel Aristides Ramirez) this year, I'll still be in the bleachers on opening day (thanks to my boss), April 10 supporting my dysfunctional family as I do every year. They're the only one I've got.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Alloy Orchestra - Live Performance Review

Alloy Orchestra playing their original score live, for Alfred Hitchcock's non-talkie * "Blackmail" (1929)
. This event took place at the Mass MoCA gallery in October 2006.

The enormous galleries here have some eye-popping stuff lurking in almost every room (especially artist Huang Yong Ping's giant, suspended, serpent skeleton). There's plenty to feast on including a great Pixilated Lo-Fi computer animation by Paul Chan, that had my girlfriend Fifi and I hypnotized for nearly half an hour. At an eight dollar admission (student rate, regular adult is $10), it's quite a bang for your buck too, if it's even possible to refer to a museum in that colloquial context. If you live anywhere between Boston and New York it's worth the trip.

Alloy Orchestra's score to Blackmail was intelligent, humorous and most importantly, for Hitch's sake, gripping. The Alloy Orchestra playing it live on stage with Blackmail behind them on the big screen was special to say the least. This collaboration fit nicely together with Alloy Orchestra’s creativity exercised via using the film as its canvas. If you are able to find Blackmail it’s absolutely worth viewing. This silent film (there was a sound version by Hitchcock as well) demonstrates Hitchcock’s mastery at propelling narrative via “showing” as opposed to “telling” which we unfortunately get entirely too much of these days in movies. If you ever get a chance to see the Alloy Orchestra live (and they play all around the country) by all means enjoy the experience at least once. Some trivia regarding The Alloy Orchestra… One of its members, Roger Miller, is the guitarist in the most underrated band in the past 30 years (That’s just this reporter’s opinion), Mission of Burma. Less important, apparently they are Roger Ebert’s contemporary favorites for composing and performing silent film scores.

* Hitchcock shot two versions of this film, a sound and a silent one.

Why the blog, dog?

I decided to take advantage of the free blog service Google has to offer because I thought it might be entertaining to have discussions about a few specific subjects, or whatever else, with whomever via a blog. My main motivation is that it will keep me writing on a fairly consistent basis. My girlfriend is an Economics major with a math minor at a very fine (and therefore demanding) school. Not only does she have little time to watch movies and baseball (my big obsessions) with me, but do much of anything else except for studying. My other friends locally are mostly into music and enjoy playing the “rawk” music or have families with children. So that leaves me high and dry (in terms of film/Red Sox friends, not Def Leppard albums). I used to have a myspace page but that site smacks of being an electronic popularity contest. Wow you have 567 friends? Your value as a human being must be extraordinary. I have many friends too but I don’t collect or have the urge to put them on display, not unlike an old lady may with Hummel figurines. I’m also a horrible correspondent so I find myself infrequently spending time composing letters and email. This does not seem to be conducive to myspace where there appears to be a requisite 6-7 hours a day of one’s time devoted to emailing but more so (creepily) browsing the profiles of complete strangers. To me that’s about as much fun as Carrie White had at the prom

I’ve just recently finished my last semester at U-Mass where I’m a 36 year old undergrad English major. Perhaps I’ll get my graduate degree when I’m simultaneously collecting social security and Medicaid benefits. Regardless the reason I mention this is because I have more free time and that means more time to feed my celluloid addiction. This also means more time to devote to the Boston Red Sox, a lifelong passion of mine. I would ideally like to have some people to discuss the Sox and film with in an intelligent, lively and most importantly fun manner. I’m not interested in putting other people’s tastes or opinions down, or promoting my own as somehow better. It’s obviously subjective. How you feel about a film is not the most important reaction you can have. I think that the intent, the result and the reasoning behind the film is where discussion is merited and interesting. So you ‘loved’ “Crash” and ‘hated’ “Turner and Hooch.” So what? I’m more interested in figuring out what the filmmakers are trying to say and how they say it, or show it (Crash- anything that happens in southern California is racially motivated, Turner and Hooch – a giant dog’s drool and poop is hilarious.) I’m also a big fan of film noir and there is a great website called Back Alley Noir which hosts a cast of very knowledgeable and friendly people. It’s a good place to chew the fat about noir with some fine people.

For the most part I want to keep the blog focused on three subjects: Film, Boston Red Sox and sharks. Yes I've got a thing about (which is a euphemism for obsession) sharks. They are the only real monsters we have left on planet earth. They are man-eating cold blooded killers which kill more humans every year than we are led to believe. I'll save my wacky conspiracy theories about the Australian and South African tourism bureaus and shark attack cover-ups for another day. I've found that that the majority of blogs out there are a real hodgepodge of subjects people seem to feel qualified to comment about. That's the beauty of the blog, the voice of the common person writing about what they want to write about in a forum that anyone in the world can read. However, in practice it can make for such exciting entries as a bored housewife in Corvallis, Oregon writing about the cutest little fern candle holder she found in the Lillian Vernon catalog when she should be writing about her take on today's episode of Passions, or some hipster tool in Brooklyn talking about how much the President sucks when he should be writing about some obscure band that only he and a few others have listened to play. My point is; stick with what you know and keep it simple. Therefore it's movies, sharks and Red Sox on this blog. I may throw a changeup entry on occasion too. Enjoy.

The Big Clock (1948) - Film Review

If there is one thing I learned from Ray Milland’s most famous performance, it’s that a booze bender makes for a great narrative. Milland’s Oscar winning role in The Lost Weekend was as one of film history’s most memorable and voracious alcoholics. Battling his personal bacchant demons, as well as the people trying to sober him up, made for a great movie (especially when flying bats are hallucinated). In director John Farrow’s The Big Clock we know that Milland may find himself in trouble again because of lady liquor after he is fired from his job and confides that the first thing he is going to do is “have a good stiff couple of drinks.” In this film he ties one on with the wrong woman, in the wrong place and as the title may allude, at the wrong time. The fatal result is a murder committed in the heat of passion. What follows is an unconventional cat and mouse story that pits Milland and Charles Laughton against each other and the stakes are a reserved seat at the state penitentiary’s electric chair. Using a phony murder suspect as the bait to get the drop on one another, Farrow, Laughton and Milland deliver the suspense goods in spades. As the seconds tick away and the tension is ratcheted up, the film’s big question is which character will walk away with their life, and which will take the long walk to the chair.

Ray Milland’s character George Stroud is the lead editor of Janoth Publication’s most popular weekly periodical titled “Crimeways.” This magazine is renowned, as Milland’s dubs it, for being “the country’s police blotter.” This magazine’s success is due largely to George Stroud’s uncanny knack for finding criminals who don’t want to be found. This method Stroud innovates is called the “System of Irrelevant Clues” where the suspect of the investigation du-jour is essentially profiled as to their likes, dislikes, proclivities and other tendencies that could aid in their apprehension (as the moniker suggests, apparently the Police believe these same clues are irrelevant!?) This is indeed a handy skill for a criminal investigative journalist and Stroud has parlayed it into a very successful career. His success however comes with a steep price and the tag reads: marriage on the rocks. Due to his numerous hours spent at the “Crimeways” office, Stroud is rarely available for his wife and five year old son. Georgette Stroud (Maureen O'Sullivan) later tells her husband that she thinks that he married the magazine instead of her.

George Stroud’s marital discord is of no concern to Charles Laughton’s character of media giant Earl Janoth. Janoth’s only concerns seem to be making money, having his employees under his thumb and his obsession with clocks and punctuality. His mistress Pauline York (played by Rita Johnson) is on very shaky terms with Janoth and we glean that she is using him for his money. In return she is a nice bit of eye candy he can dangle on his arm. Laughton is fantastic as the automaton mogul, who is equally concerned with how to increase readership by the tens of thousands and micromanage his business by ruthlessly pinching pennies. This is hilariously demonstrated when Janoth tells his assistant that, “On the fourth floor, in a broom closet, the bulb has been burning for several days. Find the man responsible and dock his pay.” George Stroud however is fed up with his family taking a back seat to the magazine and Laughton. He is determined to finally take a long overdue vacation with his wife and son. Janoth has other ideas for Stroud and gives him an ultimatum; either he stays and helps with a big story he just broke, or is fired and blackballed by Janoth. Stroud has reached his limit and chooses the latter. Before he goes to the train station to meet his wife and son for their belated honeymoon/vacation he decides to celebrate his new found freedom by enjoying cocktails with Pauline, his now ex-employer’s mistress.

Her invitation for drinks is under the pretence of pooling their collective dirt on Janoth for some payback. Several dozen Stingers later, the evening has degenerated into quite a drinking binge. George misses his train and he wakes up in Pauline’s apartment on the couch later in the evening after passing out (no husband of the year award for him). With a hearty hangover he’s quickly pushed out the door by Pauline as she sees Janoth on his way up to her apartment for an unexpected visit. George goes down the building’s stairway but not before Janoth steps off the elevator and notices someone (Milland) leaving her apartment. Earl Janoth questions Pauline as to the identity of the person leaving her apartment and she makes up a phony name of “Jefferson Randolph.” Janoth keeps pressing her, and still tipsy, she levels some very scathing words at him. Her words inflame him and in the heat of the moment, he brains her upside the head with a sundial paperweight and kills her. Janoth flees the scene and soon after confides the murder to his loyal lead crony Steve Hagen (George Macready). Hagen takes charge and decides to go back to the scene of the crime. He eliminates Pauline’s apartment of any clues his boss left and begins laying the groundwork to frame this mysterious Jefferson Randolph for the murder, who in fact is Ray Milland’s character George Stroud. Janoth calls Stroud on his vacation the next day and tells him he needs his skills and the “Crimeways” reporters to track down this Jefferson Randolph, seen leaving Pauline’s apartment the night of her murder as he is a chief suspect. George knows that this is person is in fact himself. He must return to New York to obscure the trail to the fictional Randolph as it will definitely lead him into a world of trouble with the authorities and his wife.

This implausible scenario sets up the movie’s real goods which consist of an unconventional cat and mouse game where the lines between prey and predator are crossed and re-crossed by Laughton and Milland. George Stroud is using his profiling technique of tracking down people to theoretically track down himself. Not only does he have to foil this process and thwart his magazines staff employing it, he also must appear to be helping this process when in reality he is trying to stay one step ahead of everyone, especially Janoth. His bender with Pauline has left behind a long trail of clues and witnesses that saw them together during her final evening. In particular Elsa Lanchester (Charles Laughton’s real life spouse) gives a great performance as a daffy artist who is one of these witnesses that Milland must keep away from Laughton and the “Crimeways” investigative team. As the noose tightens around George Stroud, Janoth and Hagen begin to piece together that the mysterious Jefferson Randolph is Stroud. Stroud knows that Janoth must have been the one to kill Pauline but he can’t point the finger just yet as the clues point to Jefferson Randolph, and in turn, himself.

The plot (which I have whittled down believe it or not) is fairly intricate and has some nice twists throughout the film to keep it interesting. Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer (“The Glass Key” “Nocturne”) also punches up the script with some crisp and clever dialogue keeping the film feeling brisk and not bogged down by the complex plot. Milland’s performance is great as he runs the spectrum of behavior from a sort of affable cockiness in the beginning, to severe anxiety as the suspense builds. Charles Laughton is simply amazing as always. His Janoth character is a detestable autocrat, yet his rakish behavior coupled with a vermouth dry sense of humor makes him the core delight of the film.

The most impressive visual aspect of the film is by far the camerawork. The camera moves about the characters and their surroundings with flair and grace but does so without making the viewer too conscious of its presence. Upon our introduction to Charles Laughton’s character, the camera follows him around his executive boardroom table where he slowly encircles his seated sycophantic executives pitching ideas to him on how to increase readership. As he dismisses their ideas one by one he sits down at the head of the enormous table only to soon after get up and leave the meeting. Through Farrow’s tracking shot of Laughton, we follow his every move in this scene as if the camera was mimicking the eyes of his underlings, examining the every move of their exacting executive. Farrow’s selection of shots are stylish and keep the viewer visually engaged, however, he ultimately respects the potency of the script and the cast’s ability to deliver its dramatic goods. Because of these strengths, the director is able to interject visual verve to the film through his tasty camerawork, yet it never feels like a crutch or a distraction.

“The Big Clock” is a taught, lean little thriller which has the right mix of suspense, humor, action and twists to keep your eyes on the screen. Much more enjoyable upon second viewing as I appreciated the screenplay’s cleverness more where as the first time I was really involved in the solid performances. It’s worth taking in when you get the opportunity.


“The Big Clock” Tidbits: Harry (Henry) Morgan plays Laughton’s muscle in the film but never utters a line…It was nominated for an Edgar Allen Poe award for Best Motion Picture in 1949…The film was remade in 1987 and re-titled “No Way Out.” It starred Kevin Costner, Sean Young and Gene Hackman as the heavy. I have no idea if the remake was good as I refuse to loose any more time in my life watching Costner "act".